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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Friday, October 12, 2018

What Bowlby Really Said, or, More Fun with Parental Alienation

I don’t usually watch to see what Craig Childress says on Facebook, but a lawyer colleague has called my attention to his recent comments about attachment and its implications for children who avoid one of their divorced parents. He attributes his own ideas to John Bowlby, Mary D.S. Ainsworth, and Otto Kernberg, not to mention Sal Minuchin, and describes these people with a novel collective noun as a “pantheon of kahunas”.

The problem is that Childress either doesn’t know or doesn’t understand what Bowlby actually said about attachment, or that attachment theory has changed a good deal in the course of decades of research and discussion. (I published an article in 2010 in Theory & Psychology, titled “Attachment theory and its vicissitudes”—and there have been many vicissitudes.)

Bowlby’s work was focused on trying to find explanations for some common and obvious toddler behaviors. These were of course not newly discovered but had been described for centuries, even mentioned in the Iliad. The two basic kinds of behavior Bowlby was looking were, first, the tendency of toddlers to stay close to familiar people under some circumstances, to avoid strangers and strange events, and to show severe and lasting distress when separated from familiar people, and, second, the tendency of toddlers to be curious and explore the environment under some circumstances. They stay near and they go away, with apparently contradictory motives. Why does this happen? Attachment theory began as an attempt to answer this question and built from there.

However, Bowlby’s original concern was with the way toddlers try to stay near familiar people, especially if they (the toddlers) are sick, injured, frightened, or in a strange place. He saw children hospitalized in England in the ‘30s and ‘40s, when parents were not allowed to visit and surgeries like tonsillectomies were common. Those children were terribly distressed and for months after would cling to a parent as they had not done before. Bowlby also saw European children brought to England by the Kindertransports when their families were threatened by the Nazis—suddenly packed up and sent off with strange caregivers and large groups of other children and suffering from separation, fear, and often physical distress as well. In addition, Bowlby observed English children evacuated to the countryside when London was being bombed nightly.

In all these cases the young children were badly distressed both short-term and long-term in ways that were not the same for children of school age or older. Bowlby prepared two reports for the World Health Organization, entitled “Maternal Care and Mental Health” and “Deprivation of Maternal Care”. In other words—Bowlby attributed the children’s problems to loss of the mother. He believed that human beings in early childhood were able to form an attachment to only one person, and that one was the mother. Bowlby called this tenet of his early theory monotropy. As we can see in his film “Nine Days in a Residential Nursery”, about a toddler left at a residential child care facility while his mother has another baby, fathers were not considered by Bowlby at this point to be attachment figures, and the lonely, frightened little boy in the film does not respond much to his father’s occasional visits.

Nowadays, we assume that fathers, mothers, grandparents, sisters, brothers, and babysitters can all be attachment figures for young children. Bowlby clearly did not think so—and would not have supported Childress’s view that children’s attachment to their fathers is a critical issue. It was all about mothers at that early stage in attachment theory. Why? Well, two reasons. One is that parenting behaviors have changed, with fathers given (and taking) more responsibility for child care, at least in educated middle-class groups. Bowlby would have been astonished at the idea of fathers in the delivery room (remember, even Dr. Spock said that the best thing a father could do for the child is to love the mother). But in addition to that matter, Bowlby focused on mother-baby relationships because he was searching for an explanation of toddler behavior in the lives of animals. He attributed the child’s desire to stay close to mother to evolutionary processes such that children of our remote ancestors were more likely to survive and reproduce if they fled to mother when something strange happened. Genetically-controlled behaviors of that kind are easily observed in some animals and were being studied by ethologists like Nikolaas Tinbergen. Whether human beings also showed such “fixed action patterns” was a major question, and Bowlby argued that toddler behavior toward familiar people was an example of what is sometimes described as “instinct”. Because most animals that show the tendency to stay near an adult do this with their mothers, Bowlby looked to behavior toward the mother as the foundation of social and emotional development, or attachment.

By 1995, Michael Rutter, one of the most important figures in the modernization of attachment theory, had marked a number of changes in the way the theory was developing. He ruled out monotropy (the exclusive attachment to the mother), as all the evidence was that toddlers usually have multiple attachments. Writing in the journal Child Development in 2002, Rutter referred to the overuse of the attachment concept as “evangelism”, and said “[It] is clear that parental loss or separation carries quite mild risks unless the loss leads to impaired parenting or other forms of family adaptation.” Presumably Childress would claim that lack of contact with one parent, as desired by the child, would be “family maladaptation”, but this claim cannot be derived from Bowlby (unless it’s the mother who is missing!) or from the more recent version of attachment theory as discussed by Rutter.

There’s a lot more to be said here, with respect to Bowlby and attachment theory. As the years passed, Bowlby dropped his ethological view and began to think of early attachment behavior as the foundation of an internal working model of social relationships, like the mental models  earlier suggested by Kenneth Craik. These models helped to determine social expectations and social behaviors and were “goal-corrected”, altering with time and social interaction, so that the original “attachment system” did not last for very long. (By the way, almost nobody ever talks about the exploratory system, which acts in cooperation with the attachment system and in Bowlby’s original formulation keeps a balance with attachment.) The attachment system of any individual turns into  an internal working model in the course of development, so it cannot become “deactivated” any longer, or contribute to pathological mourning if the child experiences separation in the school years or adolescence, as is the case for most of the families Childress attempts to describe.

One last thing here: Kernberg and narcissism as associated with broken attachment. Sorry, this is not what people think today. Narcissism in adolescents is connected with “overparenting”, “helicopter parenting”, but especially with excessive psychological control of children by their parents. Psychological control involves strenuous efforts to change children’s beliefs, attitudes, and emotions to those that are preferred by one or both parents. How better could we describe some of the interventions offered for “parental alienation”!

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